As you may already know, Hispaniola is an island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The eastern half, the DR, is not only my home but also for obvious reasons my primary birding and photography destination. When I started with this obsession for birds, I wanted to read and learn as much as I could as fast as I could. And as anybody who an interest in any of our 30+ endemics or hundreds of resident and migrating species, the best place to start is the Field Guide to Birds of la Hispaniola. This is how I began.
The book is a very complete account of all birds observed on the island. It will give you a quick and broad scope of all the possibilities of species and habitats available as well as great illustrations on almost all of them. Of course the most bright and colourful species are the ones everyone, including myself, wants to start with: Hispaniolan Trogon, Broad-billed Tody, Antillean Bullfinch and so on. You never have good-enough photos of this species… But after a while, when they become not-so-hard to find, the thirst of new discovery comes back. So every once in a while I go back to the field guide and I try to choose a species I have not seen yet. Like the case of the Northern Pottoo. Which I have not yet observed even after many night drives around the island and failed expeditions to sites that were supposed to be “sure-things”.
That saturday I went out with Miguel Landestoy, who along with Nicolás Corona, whom I haven’t met yet, I consider the two top birders on the island. Miguel and I headed north-east in search of one of the few birds he hadn’t seen yet and I hadn’t even heard of. That sole fact should tell you a bit of how rare this bird is in Hispaniola. We started at marshes and swamps in Monteplata with no luck. We drove around dirt roads in the area and stopped at any little spot of grass in the wetlands nearby in hope of spotting the Spotted Rail (Pardirallus maculatus). This bird was discovered in Hispaniola in 1978 and to the best of my knowledge it has only been spotted a few times after that and even though I haven’t seen any photographs I know the great dominican photographer Pedro Genaro was able to take some good shots few years ago. I am unaware of any more photos taken in Hispaniola, but if they exist, they are only a few.
We were about to call it a day when we stopped at one final lagoon and went in knee-deep into the water chasing after some Purple Gallinules when a quick small shadow flew by after making a quirky gutural sound. And there it was, a fleeting glimpse of the elusive Spotted Rail. That was the last we saw of it. But I was hooked on the challenge and determined to get the shot.
A week later I went back. Prepared with proper equipment I arrived before dark and went into the water. I made sure my camouflage was good enough and waited silently. There was a Belted Kingfisher perched just over my head and I had to pull all my strength not to alter the stillness of the water by photographing it. After all, is one of my favourite birds. There were plenty Purple Gallinules around as well as a couple of Limpkins. But patience paid off and this elusive bird came out of the tall grasses and walked right by me as it snacked on apple snail. It would suddenly freeze and look around, feeling that something was strange that morning but without being able to pinpoint exactly what. I stayed in the water for nearly four hours and was able to get some decent shots of the least observed and photographed bird on the Hispaniola and some pretty cool shots of the Purple Gallinules, the birds that unknowingly helped us find a true feathered treasure.